man playing F major 7 chord
The Fmaj7 chord shown here uses the C Major line shape

Learning guitar chords is the first step in improving your fretting hand. If you get stuck at learning guitar chords because you can't remember where to put your fingers, try thinking in terms of chord shapes.

What are chord shapes?

In essence, chord shapes are the shape the fingers on the fretboard create when you form a chord. Some shapes are recognizeable immediately; other shapes are more abstract and take time to recognize.

Chord shapes form the basis of the idea behind the CAGED system. This system means you only need to memorize five chords, C, A, G, E and D to learn all the chords on the guitar.

Shapes Are More Versatile Than CAGED

I think we can simplify and expand the CAGED system, however, by using easier to regonize shapes such as lines and triangles. We can also use this idea to memorize songs faster, by using a "snapshot" of our hand at a certain section if we can't remember where to place our fingers.

Chord Shapes for Easy Chords

It's possible, but not super useful, to observe chord shapes for easy chords that take two fingers. It's probably easier in this case just to memorize which finger to use, as well as the string and fret placement for those two fingers.

Some Easy Chord Shapes

Let's start by learning to recognize easy guitar chord shapes such as D or C.

The Triangle

In the D Chord, or D7 chord, the left-hand fingers form the outline of an equilateral triangle.

Fig. 1 - The D7 chord shape forms a triangle, as shown 

Chords that use or contain the triangle shape include:

  • D major
  • D7
  • B7
  • The diminished chord shape

Here is the triangle clearly visible in the chord D Minor:

The D Minor chord and the triangle shape
A wide triangle shape for the D Minor chord

The Triangle Shape in a Part of the Chord

Sometimes the chord contains a shape in only part of the chord. In the case of B7, the triangle is on the bass notes:

B7 Chord shape with a triangle
The Triangle formed by the top fingers in the B7 chord.

The Straight Line

Both the C chord and the F chord on the guitar have the fingers all lined up in a diagonal line.

Fig. 2 - The C Major chord shape includes all fingers lined up

Chords that use the straight line chord shape include:

  • C Major and C7
  • F major, F7 and F Major 7
  • G7
  • D9

Learning New Songs Using The Chord Shape Method

The Chord Shape Memorization Method works best to nail parts that you know how to play but that you haven't memorized. Or, when you get up to that point, you draw a blank.

To use this method, stop and play the chord block shape that occurs on the beat where you draw a blank. Look at the shape of the fingers that your left hand makes and make a mental picture of it.

Observe the shape that the fingers make, and take note of the top finger of the chord.

Review and Practice

Then, move back a couple beats and start playing from there. If you draw a blank once again, don't immediately look at the tabs. Instead, try to visualize the shape that your fingers are supposed to make, and place them down on the guitar neck.

At this point, don't even be too concerned about which string you need to place the fingers on. Just get something!

Then, play the block chord and if it sounds bad, check with the tablature.

This Method Works for Chord Melody

This is the technique that I used to memorize my fingerstyle arrangement of Pachelbel’s Cannon.  This work consists of eight chords in succession: D Major, A Major, B Minor, F# Minor, G Major, D Major, G Major and A Major.

Use Chord Shapes With Alternate Tunings

When I run into difficulty memorizing a specific passage in this song, I play the notes that occur on the beat and ignore the other melody notes in that measure that occur off the beat.  

In cases where the harmony changes on beats 1 and 3, I can memorize the shape of the chord that occurs on those beats, and then play the passage at a slow tempo.  I use this technique heavily when learning songs that use alternate tunings, like our example which is in Drop D.

How to Remember Abstract Chord Shapes

One of the ways that I use to remember abstract chord shapes is to isolate the top finger.

Place the top finger first on the highest string of the chord, then place the chord shape. As long as you can remember this finger, it will give you a head start on placing the rest of the fingers for the chord.

Deliberate Practice is Difficult but Gets Results

Remembering chord shapes is a form of deliberate practice as defined by the paper on deliberate practice by K Anders Ericsson. 

This is the kind of practice that’s tough to do but shows much better results.  This is the power of this technique of visualization. Use this technique to memorize your fingerstyle songs much faster.